Monday, September 21, 2009

The End of the American Consensus

We weren't told how to behave that day after 9-11, we just knew. It was right; it was the opposite of what we feel today . . . Are you ready to be the person you were that day after 9-11, on 9-12?

-Glenn Beck, 3/13/09

Wherefore 9/11 nostalgia?

What kind of nostalgia does the memory of 9-12-01 provoke? Why would it be appealing?

The memory of unity, of confronting the world as a coherent American people is clearly part of such romanticism.

The current economic recession, the fear of terrorism, and intensified political partisanship (through the Bush and, now, the Obama years) heighten the appeal of a reassuring unity.

Whence our discord?

But the events themselves (terror attack, economic recession) do not explain all of our unease. Nor does partisanship explain all of our discord.

Rather, 9/11 and the financial meltdown forced us to recognize American vulnerability in new ways and to make decisions that undermined the ideological consensus, predicated on the integrity of nation-states and of markets, that constituted the bulwark of American political life from, at least, World War II until recent years.

Let’s look at the security and economic challenges of recent years to understand how they have punctured this American consensus.

The security challenge:
9/11 demonstrated the limitations of the nation-state system: We learned that the apparently mundane political goings-on in other nation-states are of vital security interest to us even when possess no large conventional army. In other words, we have to pay attention to foreign societies, not just foreign militaries. The Bush Administration’s argument for the Iraq war, love it or hate it, proposed a response to this facet of the security challenge. At the same time, the preemptive Iraq War directly undermined Americans’ faith in the stability and relevance of the international laws undergirding the nation-state system.

The economic challenge:
The TARP bailout demonstrated the limitations of our corporate sector as well as our new economic vulnerability: Ultimately, the stabilization of that sector demanded the ‘public insurance’ of our tax dollars. Also, our debt and our trade imbalance demonstrated that the economic goings-on in other nation-states are of vital interest to us. Our large international debt limited our options to respond to the financial crisis and may have contributed (read more here here and here) to it in a number of ways.

In short, events have overwhelmed the ideology that underpinned American political thinking from the end of World War II until recent years: We now have less faith in the international system of nation-states as well as less faith in free market, corporate capitalism.

This ideological disorientation causes the malaise that Glenn Beck now exploits.